So far, so good

A friend recently dropped off a small trove of poetry books—names that I recognized, for the most part, though I was not necessarily familiar with the work. One book really stood out for me: Robert Cording’s Only So Far.

Like Logan, Cording apparently divides his time between Florida and colder climes (at least during the writing of this book). But while he shares Logan’s stylistic reserve, his references are not so esoteric, and will probably be familiar to anyone with a Catholic upbringing. Cording’s work is plain-spun and meditative, and frequently elegiac. Indeed, the elegy seems to be his default setting, which might just be a function of age—these are mature poems, and what they lack in youthful energy, they more than make up for in grace and wisdom.

Great examples include “Belated Elegy, January 1, 2011,” and “Elegy for an Idea” (inspired by Philippe Petit, who also made an appearance  in my first book). There’s also “Last Day,” “Words,” and “Fall Cleaning, Windows Mostly,” which is a curiously moving elegy for a mouse. But of course, the elegy to his father, “Still Listening,” sets the standard. It’s written as a sequence detailing the period just before and after his father’s death. The first part, in particular, shows remarkable formal flourish; it portrays the family gathered with the ailing father in hospice, improvising a “Jumble” (like the sort typically found in the funny pages of the newspaper) to pass the time and keep his flagging spirits up. It’s written as a series of couplets, and the last words of the couplets are themselves word jumbles: read and dear, life and file, lamp and palm, etc.

Anything can be a form, but the form should arise from and reinforce the content. In this case, the form is a foil to the father’s mental state, as he struggles to make sense of his impending exit from the world, no longer able to solve even simple mental puzzles. And at the end of it, life remains a puzzle that he has never quite managed to solve. We also see him, in other poems in the book, buried behind his morning newspaper—and the fact that he has here set it down becomes emblematic of his letting go of life, of relinquishing the daily facts of the world, of surrendering his authority.

The final part of the sequence recounts the poet fiddling with his father’s hearing aids, which have been kept like relics in a drawer. It is an odd bridge to his dead father, one that brings him close but ultimately can not bring him back:

I fit one into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech….

The title, “Still Listening,” takes on added resonance, as it carries two very different connotations, based on which preposition follows. Listening “to” implies an active engagement, an understanding, a communication. Listening “for” implies an anticipation, an unmet expectation, a lonely silence. This distinction gains even greater significance with regard to a line halfway through the poem, “God is still speaking, but we’re not listening.” Is Cording expectantly (but fruitlessly) listening for God to speak? Or is he still listening to God as he speaks, with uncertain comprehension? Is the voice of God any more audible than the voice of his dead father?

It should be noted that the phrase “I am still listening” also appears in the elegy, “Words,” so there’s something in the phrase or act that carries some deep meaning for the poet.

Cording is an astute observer of both the natural world and human nature. We find a lot of ocean sunsets, local flora and fauna (manatees, pelicans, alligators), and walks in the wild. In fact, many of the poems exhibit a meditative, melancholy state that was apparently induced by a solitary walk. But there’s also the grit of what I think describes a childhood and coming of age in New Jersey: the conveyor belts of “Evolution,” the dilapidated porno theaters in “A Beginning,” the sky “tinged with green” in “1964.” Even the father listening to Sinatra in “Still Listening” conjures images of Hoboken or a similar town.

I’ll end with a quick look at the poems that bookend the collection. “Kafka’s Fence,” which occurs just before the first of four numbered sections of the book, can be viewed as the apologia. The tone of quiet frustration and complaint reaches its peak in the line, “Haven’t we / always known we’d reach and end we couldn’t complete?” It’s a take on the ars longa vita brevis theme, except in this case, it’s lamenting the fact that life is often too short to create a lasting work of art–or anything, for that matter. That stands in stark contrast to the final poem, “No-Name Pond,” which concedes, by its title, that even enduring works of nature are ultimately anonymous, much like great artists over time. Nevertheless, it concludes,

Maybe all these cairns are just a way of saying
it was good to be here […] Good to bring
a few stones together, and come to know,
so casually as I paddle off
that, most likely, I’ll never be back.

Those final lines may be deceptively simple, perhaps underwhelming, but they hold an acceptance, a resignation, that the poet has been driving toward throughout the course of the entire book. It is a quiet ending to what is often a quiet book, more elegiac than nostalgic, from a poet less intent on making himself heard than on listening to what the universe might have to say.